On January 23, 2016, I gave this paper as the keynote speaker at the Conference of Current Pagan Studies, in Claremont, California. It was well received and I want to make it available to anyone who is interested.
Social Justice from a Pagan perspective
What is Social Justice?
Writings on social justice comprise a small intellectual industry, and my paper does not pretend to cover even its leading edge. Instead I will give an abstract working definition I think most of you will find reasonable, setting the stage to explore how Pagan religions might add additional insight to this much discussed concept.
Briefly, justice is fairness and social justice is fairness towards all in society. Unfairness is being treated worse than another without an appropriate reason. This is unjust.
Fairness is not simply a subjective construct even if its outer limits are contestable. Fairness emerges from the reality of what it is to be a social being. Non-human social animals have been shown to have a strong sense of fairness, at least when it is they who are treated unfairly. (Bekoff, 2009, 127-8) We have no trouble understanding why they reacted as they did. If there is anything unique about the human sense of fairness, it is that it extends beyond where our self-interest and relationships connect, to embrace strangers we have never met, including future generations and those in the past, acknowledging and even trying to address previously unfair situations.
Social justice exists when equal people are treated equally and fairly. In the modern world fairness is linked to equality. All people are considered equal in legal status. On the other hand, as fair rules for games demonstrate, people can be treated fairly and some still do better than others. Among individuals or in society, justice need not include equal outcomes.
Assuming general agreement so far, can a contemporary Pagan perspective shed additional light on what constitutes a more just state of affairs and how to approach it more closely? I believe so. A Pagan perspective illuminates issues often lost within monotheist or secular ones, However any arguments we make must be in universal terms if we expect others to take them seriously. Dichotomy
We often think in dichotomies, as when we say “On the one hand but on the other.” Were we descended from octopuses we would be less likely to think this way. But we aren’t. Monotheisms strengthen this natural tendency because monotheists usually see the world in terms of good versus evil. Secular societies shaped by monotheisms, such as our own, continue this pattern, framing basic issues in terms of mind or matter, good or evil, right or wrong, and humanity vs. the world. Many people also think about social justice issues in these terms, claiming “So long as one man is not free no one is free,” or “voting for the ‘lesser evil’ is still evil.”
Pagan perspectives are less hospitable than Christian or Christianized secular thinking to this style of reasoning and the utopian conclusions it encourages.
However, Plato’s Republic is an instructive counter example. His doctrine of unchanging Forms and denigration of the material world led him to think he had found external criteria to judge this world. His proposals to shape the world to fit this other realm were certainly utopian. But among Pagan thinkers Plato remains the exception.
The Abrahamic emphasis on sacred texts and an absolutely good God demanding obedience strengthened the utopian tendency Plato exemplified. Rules of justice could be found only through divine revelation, and not within the world. Abrahamic traditions often promised “true justice” would arrive only when “Godly rule” was established, either by God or more ominously, by His servants acting in His name.
Abrahamic monotheists were trapped by the dilemma that their “good” could never actually be achieved and so millenarian utopian movements periodically arose, seeking to replace worldly corruption with Godly rule. (Polanyi 1969, 4) When the goal is salvation everything existing becomes a tool, an obstacle, or irrelevant, and anything short of the ideal is inadequate. From eschatological monotheism we find the roots of modern totalitarianism where a worldly paradise could be created once the flawed reality in which we suffered was smashed. ISIL today is acting in this tradition, destroying all that fails to live up to its unattainable standards.
Contrast this way of viewing social issues with what I call an ecological sensibility where we think in terms of networks of relationships. What is good in one context might be less so, or even bad, in another because something’s worth depends at least in part on where it is in a network of relations.
Pagan religions are particularly compatible with this ecological perspective emphasizing a greater harmony among different parts/processes/actors/deities, none of whom are all good or all bad. Context always matters. The whole is greater than the sum of its parts because a harmony creating a greater whole arises out of contrasting relationships. Reality is a complexly woven multi-dimensional tapestry greater than can be grasped from any point within it. Every view is partial.
Pagan perspectives are biased against thinking in absolutes. Sometimes something happens that can only reasonably be considered wrong, such as genocide. But what makes it bad is the absence of any context in which it is appropriate. For another example, consider death. In the Abrahamic tradition death is a punishment for our or others’ sins. For many NeoPagans death is an essential part of life. In some contexts death is bad. In others it marks the appropriate end of a life well lived. In isolation, death is neither good nor bad.
This traditional Pagan perspective was illustrated when Socrates asked Meno to define virtue. Meno offered him many examples of virtuous action rather than an abstract definition. Socrates claimed this was no definition at all, but “a whole swarm of virtues.”(Plato, 72a) But Socrates’ response only applies if virtue is an abstract thing, a Platonic Form, rather than a quality arising out of acting in relationship, and so taking different forms depending on the context. Meno’s more traditional response located virtue in the warp and weft of relationships. Virtue was more verb than noun.
From the polytheisms of the past to modern ones such as within the African Diaspora, the Gods often have complex family relationships with one another. Be they divine or human, family relations are rarely clarified by considering one side completely right and the other wrong, let alone good or evil.
Coercion and domination
Monotheistic thinking also legitimates a highly coercive architectonic politics. God rules us and the same pattern of rule and obedience within an absolute hierarchy often extends all the way down. In secular form this spirit is reflected in the idea experts guided by Truth can reorder society for its own good. Justice can be imposed on the unjust by experts empowered with knowledge others lack. Secular experts take the place of God and the truth of science replaces the Truth of His commandments. (diZerega, 2013)
Again a polytheistic perspective encourages a different outlook. In most polytheistic pantheons there is no supreme ruler. Zeus was the “first among equals.” Even so, He could not compel Demeter when She refused to let the earth flourish after Her daughter was seized and taken to Hades. Zeus was powerless. Pantheons could become complex and have many different levels, but those levels rarely, perhaps never, led to anyone ruling from the top. There might be a supreme Source, a Dryghtyn, a One, but this Source is in no sense a ruler.
From this perspective order and pattern arise out of appropriate behavior in harmony with contexts, not from obeying a supreme authority. It is not the product of anyone’s plan. In this way Pagan polytheistic styles of thought are in remarkable congruence with contemporary interest in complexity, spontaneous order, emergence, and ecology.
Virtue and Harmony
Historically Pagan religions have flourished in every type of society, but a Pagan sensibility encourages envisioning the world ecologically, distrusts dichotomies, prefers pragmatism to utopianism, and does not legitimate top down control to create order or the good society. Whereas the political bias of monotheistic religions and the habits of thought they encourage are authoritarian and even millenarian, Pagan religions generally encourage broadly tolerant, moderately progressive or moderately conservative perspectives. This perspective values harmony and dynamic balance: Spring and Fall; Summer and Winter; life and death; joy and sorrow. The Summerland is not in this world, but its absence is not a sign of the world’s fallenness.
I am not simply drawing another dichotomy between Pagans and Monotheists. Some monotheistic religions are tolerant. (diZerega, 2015) When unified with political power and religious hierarchies Pagan religions can legitimate oppression and violence. I’ll take the Quakers over the Aztecs or Romans any time. The differences between Pagan and monotheistic perspectives are not absolute. But the tendencies within each are clear.
Polytheism’s core value, it seems to me, is harmony in complexity. It honors harmony in a world of change and uncertainty by giving a wide variety of spiritual powers and deities their due. Of course someone can make a personal commitment to a specific deity if they wish. I have done so myself. But that deity still remains one among many, the commitment was made within a divine society rather than by elevating one deity to supremacy. Polytheism is the intricate polyphonic harmony of jazz, not that of a single drum beating.
To the degree these observations are true, I think certain political insights follow.
Aristotle and a Pagan approach to social justice
In my view Aristotle provides the foundations for a contemporary Pagan approach to social justice. From a modern perspective Aristotle went astray in accepting the then dominant Greek belief people differed so much that men, particularly Greek men, were superior to all others and should over see them politically, sometimes through enslavement. But unlike the many who took that condition for granted. Aristotle emphasized giving reasons for his conclusions. Giving reasons opens the way to showing an argument is faulty, and Aristotle’s reasons for slavery and extreme gender hierarchy have long been rejected as inadequate. However Aristotle’s arguments about equality and justice among equal citizens remain, and apply to all people, or at least all competent adults. (diZerega, 2000)[i] This is where his thinking remains relevant to us today.
Aristotle’s Politics emphasized the ideal of harmony or balance between society’s basic elements. His ideal of political health was a community where rational argument and action served the common good. Such a community was not based on force because it emphasized the importance of agreement as the source of legitimacy. By contrast, tyranny was rule by force. A tyrant could rule well, but so long as he relied on force to maintain power, he was a tyrant and so corrupt.
When a just polity exists, all the basic groups within it agree on its basic constitution. (Aristotle, 1958) By “constitution” Aristotle meant not only the abstract structure of how rules were made, but the polis’s way of life. It is more a biological term, like your or my physical constitution, rather than a written document. Aristotle’s recommendations for creating a strong constitution sought to encourage social harmony and so maintain a practical consensus. His theoretical framework explored how such an outcome might be approached even when people were prone to putting their personal interests ahead of the good of the community. (diZerega, 2000)
Taken in its broadest sense, liberalism is the contemporary political philosophy in greatest harmony with a modern Pagan outlook that rejects Aristotle’s view of some people appropriately ruling over others. Liberalism’s core ethical insight is that individuals are the fundamental moral units within society, and all individuals are equally so.[ii] Because people differ on many issues, liberalism necessarily embraces a plurality of views and values that can not be ordered into a hierarchy. In this sense liberalism is particularly compatible with polytheism, for it applies to a community of mortal individuals whereas polytheism describes a community of immortals.
I was a liberal before I became a Pagan and continue to think of myself as one. Nevertheless as traditionally expressed by liberals many of it tenets are incompatible with Pagan perspectives and need to be reconsidered. In particular, liberal conceptions of individuals and their rights, of nature, and of property all need to be rethought.
John Locke was liberalism’s founding philosopher, and defended his doctrine of rights by his interpretation of Christianity. Later more secular liberals were often very mechanistic in their thinking, and here is a major difference between them and a Pagan inspired approach.
Aristotle and Modernity
Unlike Plato, Aristotle looked to life on earth for insights helping him study the human world as was symbolized by Raphael’s famous Renaissance painting depicting Plato pointing up, while the younger Aristotle gestures to the earth. In keeping with that approach, Aristotle’s approach was more biological and ecological than Plato’s or modern liberalism. In my view this increases his relevance in a time when liberalism’s foundations are weak and we are deepening our awareness of close connections to the web of life. While derived from different origins important Aristotelian concepts appear in the writings of important modern theorists, among them James Madison and Jürgen Habermas. These men arrived at their insights via different routes than had Aristotle, but that different approaches lead to similar insights adds credibility to them.
Aristotle argued speech and the type of reason speech encourages is humankind’s most unique quality. For Aristotle reason develops within us primarily through conversation, or dialectical reasoning. A “rational animal” such as humans requires speech for rationality to develop and manifest. Even if not reason’s highest form, speech seeking agreement among equals is the foundation from which more developed forms of reasoning can be attained. (Randall, 1960, 37-51)
Aristotle argued the natural end of human life was the fullest development of this potentiality through concern for community well-being. Man, he wrote “is by nature an animal intended to live in a polis, [a self-governing city]. This is because our “faculty of language serves to declare what is advantageous and what is the reverse, and it therefore serves to declare what is just and what is unjust. It is the peculiarity of man. . . . that he alone possesses a perception of good and evil, of the just and unjust, and of other similar qualities; and it is association in these things which makes a family and a polis.” (Aristotle, 1958, 1-15) According to Aristotle both the human family and the polis are based upon speech but the polis was superior to the family because, unlike within a family, relations among citizens were equal. (Salkever, 1986, 240-2)
Today Jürgen Habermas makes a similar point, that inherent within the logic of language are the ideals of equal relationships and uncoerced agreement.
Habermas argues when speakers are communicating successfully, they make four implicit claims: they are speaking intelligibly, they are speaking truly, their intentions are clear, and they are seeking agreement. He writes “other forms of social action—for example, conflict, competition, strategic action in general—are derivatives of action oriented toward reaching understanding.” (Habermas, 1979, 21)
Aristotle argued poleis could divide into three types of governance, each with a virtuous and corrupt form, depending on whether they depended on coercion to survive. A society could be governed by a king as a monarchy or ruled by force as a tyranny. Government by the few could be a virtuous aristocracy or a corrupt oligarchy. The virtuous many governed a polity, the corrupt majority a democracy. The key distinction was whether citizens freely agreed the government was legitimate, or were coerced into obeying.
However, Aristotle recognized that in politics people often seek their interests at others’ expense, precluding the ideal. Consequently Aristotle argued a slightly different form of “Polity” was best for such citizens because when groups were properly balanced a government would rule for the good of all even with citizens inclined to serve themselves at others’ expense. A polity did so by balancing interests so none could prevail over others.
James Madison is usually credited as the first major thinker to embrace the idea that inevitable factions splitting societies did not constitute an argument against popular government because they could serve as mutual checks.
Like Aristotle, Madison argued government should be designed so that no faction could win superiority over another. Madison’s core contribution, made most clearly in Federalist 10, (1961) was to argue a large country of many factions, not just Aristotle’s basic three, could prevent the worst abuses because it made it hard for enough to combine against the others. Aristotle’s ideal was too small. In a complex society many factions had to find common ground protecting the interests of many to be able to prevail. Madison also argued representation, an aristocratic concept for Aristotle, solved the problem of size, for while complex societies were too big for direct participation, elected representatives could do the job. Both men relied on similar insights and logic.
The modern party system has undermined Madison’s institutional recommendation but not his logic. New institutional arrangements are now needed but the same reasoning is the necessary guide. However, my point here is simply to clarify Madison’s reasoning.
The Great Game
How would people biased towards serving their own good be able to create a just government knowing that at least occasionally they might lose when a political decision is made? I want to bring in another theorist not associated with any of these three. Like Habermas, F. A. Hayek is one of the most important theorists of the twentieth century. Sadly his work has been appropriated though rarely understood by market liberals and because they claim him for their own he has been largely rejected by other liberals. Both have failed to understand Hayek’s deepest insights. (diZerega, 2010, 2004)
For this talk I focus only on one of them.[iii] Inquiring as to when competition rather than cooperation could be ethically preferred, Hayek argued it was only justified when the best outcome was otherwise unknown. Competition was not a good in itself, but could be employed as a discovery process. The clearest case was in competitive games where everyone played by the same rules and the winner was whoever came out ahead. No other method could do as well in solving the problem of determining the better player.(1978, 180)
Analogous situations existed in science and the market economy. We do not know what theory is scientifically most qualified except through the competitive process of science. We do not know what products are preferred or how best to produce them except through the market process. The market process and science were analogous to competitive games discovering otherwise unknown outcomes. Facilitating successful discovery rather than rewarding individual excellence was the social advantage of competition. And for competition to work best it must be fair, with the same rules applying to all. My own work showed how the same insight applied to liberalism’s third major institution, liberal democracy. (2000)
Very importantly, Hayek cautioned winning within any of these systems did not necessarily reflect the winner’s superiority because the outcome was influenced not only by the players’ skill, but also by their resources and luck. The pay off was not discovering who was best but rather what was most likely the best outcome in an uncertain situation; with no certainty it would always be the ideal. Hayek emphasized “The element of luck is as inseparable from the market as the element of skill,” (1976, 117) a point every market liberal ignores.
I want to build on this insight. Unlike markets, science, or games, taken as a whole, society does not have a single standard for evaluating a discovery. It is a field for multiple discoveries based on many different standards. A free society is one where people choose their goals for themselves. A rich society is one where people can choose their goals for their own lives across a wide range of values and purposes. It is a relational field where people can explore any possibility they perceive open to them. But beyond the person’s own judgment there is no general standard for success or failure. With no common standard for winning, and no agreement as to what constitutes a win, the case for people pursuing whatever avenues appeal to them is powerful so long as all are subject to the same rules.
As an ideal, liberal democracy is the process through which a community discovers those rules. Like a game, the rules through which citizens interact must be fair, but how well people employ the rules reflects their skill, resources, vision, and luck. A free society constitutes a field for discovery where the ultimate judge is each member’s self-evaluation. A just society maximizes the likelihood any random chosen individual can succeed, but it can do this only if it does not guarantee anyone success.
Hayek’s argument is similar to Aristotle’s point that in a just polity all major groups will favor the continuation of its constitution, its way of life. From this perspective social justice is not a “fair outcome” because we can not know the outcomes before they arise. If the rules are fair and fairly applied, the outcome will be fair no matter who wins.
We can create fair rules for living life, and apply them equally. This obviously includes the liberal values of equality of status in playing that ‘game,’ but it involves more than this. Unlike a game we choose to play, we do not choose to live our lives in any conscious sense. We are born and proceed from there. In a just society everyone should have a good opportunity to play the ‘game of life’ as they are drawn to pursue it, subject only to the same standards being applied to everyone else. A sport has a goal embedded in the logic of its rules. The ‘game of life’ includes many goals within its rules, goals determined by those who ‘play’. Empowerment is therefore an essential element of social justice, and empowerment is the value most admirers of Hayek do not grasp.
How empowerment of individuals is best achieved is obviously complex, contested, and beyond the scope of this paper. However a Pagan influenced perspective differs from most liberal ones rooted in Christian assumptions because it recognizes we are who we are because of the relations around us. As the traditional African saying goes, “I am because we are.” (Tutu, 2015) Consequently empowerment involves not only enabling individuals to “play the game of life” in whatever way they choose, it also involves maintaining the society in which they live. This insight was well known to many of our Founders because they were powerfully influenced by Classical Pagan thought. (Stewart, 2014) However this sensibility has fallen almost out of sight due to the hyper-individualistic view of people modern liberalism now cultivates.
Can this Pagan inspired perspective add additional insights where the rubber of political theory meets the hard and pot holed roads of lived reality? For a theory of social justice to matter it must offer new or strengthen old insights. I will explore how it enriches our grasp of two important issues: nature and race. Both are difficult for traditional liberalism to encompass, in one case due to liberalism’s impoverished ethics towards the more-then-human world and in the other to its viewing individuals as discrete units rather than shaped by relationships. (I was also going to include labor but doing so would make this paper far too long for a presentation. If interested see diZerega, 2015a)
In contrast to most monotheisms, Pagan religion holds the sacred is immanent in the world. Pagans generally acknowledge the sacredness of place and pattern whereas monotheists usually contend the world is in no way sacred. To be sure some Pagans (including this one) have always recognized a transcendent dimension, and some monotheists see their God in as well as above the world. Despite this area of partial overlap, in general Pagan religions emphasize the sacredness of the immanent and monotheists the exclusivity of the transcendent.
From most Pagan perspectives our world is alive in some nontrivial sense. Consequently we are immersed in relationships not just within the human world, but also within the nonhuman world. The chief difference I suggest, is that the nonhuman world depends on predation for its well-being in a way the human world does not.
Attempts to expand liberal ideas about rights into nature, as Thomas Regan attempted to do (Regan, 2004), do not work well in a world where, as Gary Snyder put it, we are all guests at the great table: first as diners and later as the meal. (Snyder, 1990, 19) Utilitarianism, the other major liberal ethical framework has serious problems of its own undermining it as an environmental standard. (diZerega, 2013, 73-4)
While Aristotelian theory never developed an ethic of nature’s having intrinsic value, even more venerable Pagan traditions did. Many, perhaps most hunting and gathering societies intimately engaged in dealing with the natural world, developed an ethic of respect. Respect hardly precluded making using other beings, or even killing them, but it required these actions take place within a larger value field than self-interest alone.
This field encompassed universal and all embracing dynamic relationships. Buckminister Fuller famously observed “I seem to be a verb.” (Fuller, 1970) Native Americans from many tribes applied Fuller’s observation more universally. Much we designate as nouns in English, they referred to as verbs. (Kimmerer, 2014, 53) A world of active subjects required appropriate behavior, taking the form of respect. We were enmeshed, as the Lakota saying goes, in “Mitakuye Oyasin” “All Our Relations.”
Native American writer Scott Momaday put this point beautifully: “You say I use the land, and I reply, yes it is true; but it is not the first truth. The first truth is that I love the land; I see that it is beautiful. I delight in it; I am alive in it.” (Duerr, 1987, 241-2)
Liberal rights are the form respect takes among equals who are strangers. (diZerega, 1996) Both respect for nature and respect for human beings have a common derivation in what is appropriate behavior within a given context. What constitutes appropriate is bound up with fairness, a quality important not just to human ideas of justice, but also within animal societies. (Safina, 2015; Bekoff, 2009) A society defined by networks of appropriate behavior is a just society.
In making this argument I have solved a problem confronting secular liberal theory: grounding individual rights in something beyond mere anthropocentric assertion or an even weaker cultural relativism. I did so by subordinating rights to the world within which we live rather than, as secular liberals do, drawing a line between ourselves and that world.
From this perspective social justice involves justice in two societies: the purely human and the human-in-nature. Our two-legged social ecology exists within and depends on a natural social ecology. We are a part of both and achieving social justice requires maximizing appropriate behavior throughout.
While Pagan religion opposes practices treating the world simply as a resource, Pagan societies no more guaranteed respectful practices than Christian ones guaranteed opposition to torture. (Christianity Today) We need think only of Roman gladiators killing thousands of animals for others’ entertainment to know such an argument fails. No society perfectly reflects its deepest religious insights, especially when power is concentrated in some at the expense of others. But these destructive practices stand in a tension with Pagan beliefs in a way they do not with transcendental monotheism. And some Pagan societies perform better than their nonPagan neighbors, as demonstrated by traditional peoples in Amazonia and the Naxi people of Yunnan. (Nepstad 2006; Xu 2005; Sigley 2015)
If nature and beings within it have moral standing, what we think about property also requires rethinking.
Nature and property
Liberalism has been the strongest political force against the arbitrary power of one person exercised over another, except where this power is connected to ownership of private property. Sir William Blackstone observed “There is nothing which so generally strikes the imagination and engages the affections of mankind as the right of property; or that sole and despotic dominion which one man claims and exercises over the external things of the world, to the total exclusion of the right of any other individual in the universe.” (in Steinberg, 1995, 13-4) Despots are accountable to no one in how they exercise their will. The relationship is the opposite of respect. From a Pagan perspective it is also deeply wrong.
A more careful examination suggests a solution to this question.
Blackstone’s formulation fails to grasp the reality of property ownership, even when he wrote. For example, a landlord leases out some of his rights to a tenant while others remain under his or her control. Today some can even be sold separately from others rather than rented. Development rights can be sold to a land trust to safeguard a ranch from high taxes and the need to ‘develop’ it. The original owners retain the rest. We do not own “property,” we own bundles of discrete property rights. (Furubotn, 1972, 1139) Each right defines a type of relationship within which I may legally enter with another person or with what is owned. The more numerous the “bundle” of rights able be bought and sold on the market, the more complex the resulting market order becomes. Property is not a “thing,” it is a network of relationships, real and potential.
Not every possible relationship should be a property right. When the right to own slaves was abolished the market did not collapse, although the market for slaves did. This limitation on what property rights could be legitimately bought and sold was a net gain for human well-being, even if the South’s capitalist economy was destroyed.
A similar perspective holds for practices destructive to our wider natural community. Some property rights in today’s bundles are illegitimate. The right to ruin the soil or seriously reduce genetic diversity within a species located on one’s land are examples of inappropriate property rights. (Sagoff, 1990, 158-179) Exercising them is unjust. In their absence we would not see the demise of the market. We would no more reduce legitimate entrepreneurial opportunities than did eliminating slavery. We would not return to the Middle Ages or to the Pleistocene.
Social justice in the other-than-human world requires subordinating market values to other values for the same reason social justice in the human world requires subordinating market values for humans to other values. To give my conclusions without my reasons because that requires another paper, it requires prohibiting publicly held corporations from owning land or engaging in agriculture, forestry, or fishing, because corporations are incapable of acting for long on other than market values and these activities all situate economic activity within a wider ethical framework than the market can encompass. We can debate what that framework is, and whether communities, cooperatives, land trusts, families, or some mix of them should be engaged, but traditional corporations cannot act appropriately.
“Natural resources” such as air, water, coal and oil are not created by anyone and interact with everyone when used. It is inappropriate to take from either the earth or the human world without adequate reimbursement to society, including both payment for their use and limitations on their destructive use. Peter Barnes’ With Liberty and Dividends for All (2014) describes how natural resources used in industry could be publicly owned, along the lines Alaska applied years ago to oil on state lands. Every Alaskan receives a share of the profit from that resource. Public bodies would determine how much of a resource could be safely used, that is, what property rights are appropriate to own. Businesses would then bid for a share of them, the winner paying the public for the right to use a specific amount. Barnes argues such a system would generate at least $5000 per individual in the country, or $20,000 for a family of four. This approach has worked well in Alaska.
The public’s interests are harmonized with the prolonged wise use of natural resources. Economics takes second place to the values of a society. Once capital no longer dominates, respect for the other-than-human world can have effective spokespeople. The specifically Pagan insight here is that economic values should always be subordinated to non-economic values.
America’s economic foundation lies in slavery, and racism remains deeply embedded within our culture. But racism is not uniquely American, or White. Racism seems to arise from a sense of physical difference that distances ourselves from another, plus power inequalities. No society is immune from it. It also seems to decline in virulence as power between people equalizes.
We can address racism’s worst effects by reducing what I think are its two deepest causes: lack of respect for society’s weakest groups and lack of opportunity rooted in historical exploitation that created lasting barriers of status and wealth.
Lack of respect
Misconceptions arise easily when people do not interact much with one another on a relatively equal basis. Yet people in all groups tend to feel most comfortable when those like themselves are the larger component of a diverse group. It is no accident that cities with their racial and cultural diversity are consistently less racist than the more homogenous countryside, but even so they tend to generate relatively homogenous neighborhoods that can be quite racist.
Thomas Schelling’s Micromotives and Macrobehavior (2006) demonstrated how even if everyone wanted to live in a diverse neighborhood, but also had a preference for people more like themselves to be a small majority, over time as people moved around deeply segregated neighborhoods would emerge. Segregation would arise even with minimal racism.
Not only is this outcome undesired by the people in Schelling’s model, it’s results ultimately undermine the values they want to preserve. This is because when people have little contact with those different from themselves, it is easier for them to believe they are qualitatively different from one another. We see this happening today with respect to Muslims in America, as well as with Mexicans and Black Americans. Historically this problem has plagued every group emigrating here, all the way back to Germans, whom a youthful Ben Franklin believed to be incapable of assimilation. Franklin wrote (1751)
“Why should Pennsylvania, founded by the English, become a Colony of Aliens, who will shortly be so numerous as to Germanize us instead of our Anglifying them, and will never adopt our Language or Customs any more than they can acquire our Complexion?”
“. . . in Europe, the Spaniards, Italians, French, Russians and Swedes, are generally of what we call a swarthy Complexion; as are the Germans also, the Saxons only excepted, who with the English, make the principal Body of White People on the Face of the Earth.”
These physical differences, so important for many in Franklin’s time, are invisible to most of us today. But that transformation came in stages. The Irish, Italians, Poles, and others all were initially greeted with suspicion. That today we can speak of “Europeans” as a single group is an extraordinary achievement, one much too little appreciated. We are now well into the same process with Asians and in the early stages of it with non-Jewish people from the Middle East.
Hard as this progress has been, it has been even more difficult for Black, Indian, and Mexican Americans because they suffer a history of often violent subjugation at Euro-American hands. Power corrupts perceptions as well as morality. To be weak by one standard is to seem inferior by many. Not only are people prone to see others different from them as inferior, this attitude is strengthened when those others have a history of being subjugated.
The American military gives us a clue for addressing this problem. In the military people of every race and culture are thrown together and given a new identity: that of soldier. They learn to respect and depend on one another regardless of culture or race. Afterwards people who had served in the military lived in more diverse communities than those who had not. (American Sociological Association) There are good reasons for not expanding America’s military by drafting everyone, but one unexpected side effect of making it voluntary was losing this positive influence.
I wonder how much the virulent racism so visible today is due to our no longer having a draft? Communities live within their own increasingly homogenous groups, and absent significant dealings with others develop negative stereotypes. In cities, where those dealings are most common, racism is less virulent than in the country even if prevalent almost everywhere to some degree. However, other approaches could create a similar outcome.
Given the Pagan insight that respect is the most fundamental element of appropriate relationships, and respect among equals for human ones, the root issue is building mutual respect. As respect grows many other problems will fade. The focus is empowering the powerless of all races. To do so requires blurring the disconnects that make it easy for some to believe the worst about others. As this happens more mutually respectful relations will arise across the board.
Achieving more mutual respect can also address another growing problem.
Lack of opportunity
College education has become unattainable for all but the very well off or scholarship holders unless they are willing to assume substantial debt. Simultaneously higher education beyond high school is increasingly important for prospering in our economy. Having a BA is in many ways the equivalent of what a high school diploma used to be. Increasingly younger Americans’ futures are being crushed between the growing need for post high school education and the out of control cost of obtaining it. A lifetime of debt is the result for many.
Assuming the research about neighborhood diversity I cited is upheld, this problem can be solved in a way to also reduce racism.
Young people should be able to obtain universal free education of four years either in an accredited college or university, or a trade, art, or professional school of their choice. To qualify requires their giving 1-2 years of public service during which they will live where they have never lived before with people of different racial, ethnic, and religious backgrounds whom they do not know. All would be involved in jointly completing concrete projects such as building or maintaining and improving a trail, landscaping and maintaining public parks, assisting in schools, or otherwise caring for and creating public spaces and values for all. They could serve through the Peace Corps, Americorps, a revived CCC, or similar organization. Of course military service would also count, but to my mind ideally only through a truly randomized draft ensuring a cross section of our society is included. While such a program could be voluntary, its greatest social benefits would come from its being mandatory.
If service were for two years, during their first year they would be subordinate to second year members, who would administer projects collectively and so constitute a self-governing community. They would become more experienced and empowered as citizens while barriers between people of different races and religions decline as a ‘side effect.’
The goal is to nurture a desirable outcome not by engineering a new society but by cultivating people’s strengths already present to encourage different patterns of behavior. This is thinking ecologically, not mechanistically, cultivating rather than constructing, and respecting rather than dominating. We are treating society as a living network in important respects greater than the sum of its parts, as Aristotle recognized, rather than a collection of self-interested individuals, as does secular liberalism. It situates liberalism’s important insights within the context of a healthy community.
Among the positive outcomes that might be reasonably expected are:
• Greater interaction with and respect between Americans of different races, cultures, and religions.
• Greater experience acting as citizens as part of a self-governing community.
• Encouraging young people when they pursue their career choices not to base these important life decisions only on coping with future educational debts.
Conclusion These proposals illustrate how a Pagan sensibility situating individuals within communities of relationships without reducing them in the process to mere cells in the social body can shape how we view social justice issues. There may well be wiser policy proposals regarding Nature or race, but like these they will cast the net much more widely than traditionally liberal thinking does while, retaining the liberal insight on the basic moral importance of equal individuals.
In the process I think we can help rediscover the vital insight held in older integral societies and has been lost from modern ones: that we live within a universe of meaning emerging from our involvement with “All our relations.”
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I obviously disagree with the views of some earlier modern European Pagans such as Julius Evola and Ludwig Klages, but illuminating that issue adequately requires another paper.